Right after dinner, my two older sisters and I would run downstairs to the TV/Rec room to catch our favorite show, Maverick. Sister Laurie told me that when I was about three or four, I used to prance around a basement post located near that TV when the Maverick theme song came on. Round and round and round I’d prance and skip delightedly to the rhythm.
Our parents, not generally open in their displays of affection, had one big exception. They liked to put on music and dance in our living room. Dad was graceful, flowing in his motions. Mom was joyous and sometimes tearful in her poignant memories.
As I grew, my prancing turned into dancing. And in surprisingly powerful ways, my lifelong evolving attitude toward dancing provides an accurate description of my self-image and maturity.
Other than play dancing with my parents or sisters, my first memories of dancing were at Camp Benbow. Benbow was a Jewish summer camp on the shores of “Beautiful Lake Tanwax.” I was ten or eleven years old.
Benbow promoted two kinds of dancing, both in accordance with its mission to inculcate Jewish identity. First and foremost was Israeli-style line and circle dancing. Sometimes these dances were gender non-specific. Sometimes there were conscious boy-girl alignments. Usually this was to music with Hebrew lyrics.
Certainly, I was aware of – and nervous about – this official authorization to hold girls’ hands. And I was already strongly socialized to feel that holding a boy’s hand was a lesser, and even unpleasant, dance obligation. In that era, homosexuality was a subject of ridicule through snide remarks and cutting humor. But the holding of hands and shoulders and even waists between boys and girls were clearly promoted as a socially appropriate means of easing into sexuality. And, given the traditional Israeli dancing style, very egalitarian between the sexes.
There was a second style of dance at camp, and that was pop culture rock and roll. My favorite camp song was “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones, and Camp Benbow had dance nights, when us campers, none over the age of 12, and the counselors, aged 15 to 20, could rock out to fast shake-your-booty dancing. In those dances, lots of kids at once could run out onto the dance floor without having to select a partner. Many times, we would just experiment with different dance moves which we learned from one another. For the most part we neither needed to be the center of attention nor awkwardly pair up. Camp authorities were careful to only permit “slow dancing” later in the evening, to the benefit of the counselors and relief of us nervous young campers. But associating sexuality – in a controlled environment – with Jewishness was no doubt a deliberate strategy for advancing “the tribe!”
Seventh grade – my first year of junior high – was the first year my public schools had a sanctioned dance. They called them sock hops. I had never danced one-on-one with a girl before, never had a girlfriend or even the start of one. There were girls, of course, in our classes, and I had a feeling that one of them, Marla, liked me.
What did “liked me” mean? I had no idea. I think it pretty much came down to the fact that she would be friendly and actually look at me with a smile. Yeah… that was probably something.
In any event, I decided to go to the first sock hop of the year as an initiation ritual for teenage life. Terrified, yet determined, I walked to the cafeteria in the early evening twilight. Upon arrival, I sought out other boys with whom I could stand around and nervously chat. There soon became gender lines on each side of what was designed to be the dance floor. Girls to the left, boys to the right. A DJ started playing pop music and some of the brave kids paired up and got on the floor.
There were fast dances intermixed with slow dances. The fast ones… I could do that. Very awkward about looking into eyes, but bearable. I went over and asked Marla, to dance during a fast dance song. But then, with a slow music selection next, it was a big decision. Would Marla and I do it? The answer was yes.
It was first time I ever felt a girl’s breast press against mine. I had no idea what it would feel like. Turns out, it felt pretty good.
Never again did I go to a dance in junior high. In seventh grade, when Marla and I did our thing, I was probably about 5’2”. By eighth grade, as my height increased, so too did the stakes at those cafeteria dances. For by that time, kids were definitely pairing up. Those kids who did not have boyfriends or girlfriends – like me – found the intimacy of the dances too intimidating. And the longer we fell behind sexually, the harder it was to feel a part of that scene.
As my height ballooned to 6’5” by the end of high school, so did my awkwardness about my body and my timidity with girls. While I was able to connect platonically with girls, often better than boys, I was insecure about my attractiveness.
The only dance I attended up to and including high school graduation was in London, England when I was 17. I lived for five months with my mom and dad in the Belsize Park neighborhood, while dad was on sabbatical. England had a long tradition of teenage social programming outside of traditional school. It was called “youth work” by social workers, and I joined the Northwest Jewish Boys and Girls Club, ostensibly to play ping pong, but also to connect more broadly with teens my age.
While going to the club for some ping pong or chess, I was introduced to others in the club, including actual girls. Funny thing about accents. When yours is exotic, it can have its advantages. One evening a big-eyed dark-haired girl named Sara approached me and asked if I was going to go to the club dance next week. I replied that it sounded fun. That became the second time I slow-danced with a girl.
I had been in a couple of theatrical performances in high school, so when I was in community college, I got my thespian juices flowing by joining the cast of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The play’s choreographer was Bill Monroe, an ebullient African American man. “Daniel, you have a beautiful body!” he exulted. No one had ever told me that before. “Daniel, release your arms… jump and soar and spin….” My character, Erroneous, was an old man who was said to be running around the seven hills of Rome. My stage entrances became an ongoing gag, as my tall, skinny frame repeatedly made strange galloping leaps across the stage. At the cast party, Bill and others showed me dance moves. For the first time in my life, I felt pride and even confidence in my moving body.
I don’t remember any dancing at The Evergreen State College. This, even though I had my first serious girlfriend at the time. I think we enjoyed basketball and swimming together more than the dance floor. I also think that the sex role stereotyping of a typical college dance scene may have been worse than passe at TESC in those emotionally highly-charged feminist times. It may have been considered politically incorrect.
At UC Berkeley, dancing for the first time became a semi-regular social outlet with my student friends. My moves were energetic and distinctive and lubricated by wine, and for the first time, dancing became not a source of awkwardness, but a welcome release from the tensions of school.
For the rest of my life, dancing has always been associated with intimacy and celebration. At my first wedding, Jewish line and circle dancing became a comfortable and inclusive means of sharing the joy of the occasion. Later, as a single man, contra dancing and square dancing at the South Bay Grange – again with line and circle dancing – was a deliberate and socially acceptable way for single people to share the gift of touch and maybe just maybe romance.
My wife Jean LOVES to dance. She took ballet lessons as a young girl, and her face is alighted with joy whenever she is dancing. Early in our relationship, we learned salsa dancing as part of our comprehensive cultural effort at Spanish language acquisition in Buenavista de Cuellar, Mexico. We featured salsa dancing at our wedding a year later.
Jean adores the ballet and is convinced that I do not. Every single time she suggests going to a ballet performance I enthusiastically say – with never a trace of snark – that I hope to go with her. “You do not!” she responds. “No, I LOVE the ballet. Can’t wait till we go again.” We both smile. For different reasons.
 The actual performance was a hilarious and controversial flop. The director insisted on commedia dell’arte authentic wardrobes, which included stylized gigantic phalluses. As my character was an old man, my phallus, while huge, pointed straight down. Thus, under my robe, it was hardly seen. Whereas some phalluses were pointed straight up in the air or in the shape of a corkscrew. These wardrobe details had not been explained prior to try-outs for the community college student cast that included some middle-aged men who refused to wear the pubic beasts. They complained to the college administrators, but the director’s threat to those officials about interference with artistic expression – along with her lawyers willingness to pounce – won out. A public warning “for mature audiences” was placed on the ads for the play. We performed – with full orchestra mind you! – in front of audiences between 2 and 8 people. The finale of “Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tooo nighghghghghght!” was followed by rhythmic clapping from the enthusiastic matinee pair of the director’s friends. Comedy indeed!